Working under the direction of Nilanjana Dasgupta, director of the Institute for Diversity Sciences (IDS) at UMass Amherst, five professors across UMass Amherst and UMass Boston have teamed up with the Sloan Foundation on a $499,972 effort to diversify STEM culture at the graduate level.

In addition to Dasgupta, the team from UMass Amherst includes Shannon Roberts, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in the College of Engineering, and Neena Thota, senior teaching faculty and associate chair for teaching development in the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences. From UMass Boston, the team includes Daniel Haehn, professor of computer science, and Kim Hamad-Schifferli, professor of engineering.

Their goal is to create diversified pathways for undergraduate students to reach graduate educational opportunities in computer science and engineering on the Boston and Amherst campuses, which they will accomplish through professional development and inclusive mentoring for both faculty and students.

The team will begin by recruiting a cohort of ten faculty fellows and 16 student fellows, equally split between the campuses. In an effort to combine the organizational and cultural strengths of UMass Boston, a minority-serving institution (MSI), and UMass Amherst, a predominantly white institution (PWI), the team will facilitate cross-institutional professional development activities for both faculty and students.

These activities will include a faculty mentorship program for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty-mentored undergraduate research opportunities designed to empower Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, and the creation of an inclusive graduate program recruitment strategy using faculty fellows as ambassadors.

“So many programs have focused on only changing students, but our program will also focus on changing faculty,” explains Roberts. “Through the faculty fellows aspect of the grant, faculty will engage in activities that focus on changing their mindset and relationship with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. This will enable our faculty to serve as ambassadors for systematic changes that can have lasting impact, such as the implementation of holistic graduate school admissions.”

Student fellows will also participate in the Leadership Academy, an inclusive online professional development program developed and hosted by the IDS that helps students from historically marginalized backgrounds strengthen leadership skills and form relationships with peers and professional mentors.

As part of a support program to help perform this work, faculty fellows will undergo an evidence-based culturally inclusive mentorship training by the National Research Mentoring Network, establish a monthly learning community, and organize opportunities to share what they are learning with the broader UMass community.

“Our experience with research apprenticeship programs such as the Early Research Scholars Program has shown us that relationships with faculty mentors and a cohort-based peer program enhance students’ feelings of belonging and self-efficacy in computer science,” says Thota. “With the Sloan Student Fellows program, STEM-focused students from underrepresented populations will be empowered to explore graduate career paths in a community of peers and faculty across campuses.”

The team’s focus on the forging of meaningful relationships between students and faculty mentors is based on research recently published by Dasgupta in Nature Communications demonstrating that meaningful mentoring relationships are key to academic success in STEM for students from marginalized backgrounds.

“My aim is to take that evidence and convert it into programs that create expanded pathways for students and reshape institutions to represent the diversity of this nation,” says Dasgupta. “Representational diversity contributes to better science and engineering in the public interest. The more varied the STEM students, the more likely they are to strive to solve research problems connected to social problems that are ignored in today’s science. They also may have insights into research problems that fall in others’ blind spots.”

The team’s goal is for the more inclusive engineering and computer science programs engendered through this program to then become models for reform through the UMass system. “There is no better time than now to diversify the STEM community,” says Haehn. “We must prioritize culturally aware mentoring and research in the UMass system, and this new partnership will create important opportunities for historically marginalized students at both institutions.”